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Federal funding uncertainty delays West Seattle Bridge decision until after election

The West Seattle Bridge is seen looking east April 15, 2020, following an emergency closure several weeks earlier.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press
The West Seattle Bridge is seen looking east April 15, 2020, following an emergency closure several weeks earlier.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan's decision on whether to replace or repair the West Seattle Bridge will be delayed until after the election, due to uncertainty over federal funding after the Trump administration declared the city an "anarchist jurisdiction."

Last month, President Donald Trump directed federal agenciesto review and withold funding from certain Democrat-led cities that have seen major protests. Those included Seattle, Portland and New York. 

On Thursday, Seattle leaders announced the city has joined the others in suing the Trump administration over the declaration.  

But before the lawsuit was filed, Seattle got word of at least one federal transportation grant that would be subject to the president's declaration. The grant is not related to the West Seattle Bridge, and the city has not applied for it. But the overall uncertainty is giving city leaders pause.

"We can’t repair or replace the West Seattle Bridge without significant federal assistance," Durkan told KNKX in an interview. "If Seattle’s going to be barred from getting those federal funds, we have to assess how serious that is and what it does to our options."

Initially, Durkan said she would make a repair-or-replace decision by the end of October. But now she says she's waiting to see the outcome of the election because "dealing with the Trump administration on that issue is going to be significantly different than dealing with a Biden administration."

The lawsuit from Seattle, Portland and New York argues that the "anarchist" designation was "arbitrary and capricious," and that the president can't add such conditions to federal funds without congressional authorization. It's not clear how the timing of the lawsuit and the election will affect the ultimate outcome.

A statement from the Seattle City Attorney's office notes that the cities of Seattle and Portland previously won a lawsuit in a similar issue, when the Trump administration sought to withhold funds from "sanctuary cities."

Even if federal funding were guaranteed, the debate over the future of the bridge remains fierce.

City transportation officials seem to be favoring replacing the bridge, despite a longer timeline and big upfront costs. A repaired bridge would need to be replaced eventually, which would drive up long-term costs.

A recent cost-benefit analysis shows the preferred replacement option would cost about $380 million to build, with travel restored by 2026. The report did not consider an expedited replacement option that's being investigated by engineers. 

But many West Seattlites have advocated for minimizing traffic impacts as a main priority. Repairing the bridge could get drivers moving more quickly.

The repair option that's rising to the top would cost about $50 million at the outset and get travelers back on the bridge in 2022. But long-term ownership costs are about the same between the preferred repair and replace options, according to the cost-benefit analysis.

There are still a lot of specifics to be worked out depending on the ultimate decsision.

The West Seattle Bridge has been closed since March 23, after city crews discovered widening cracks in the roadway. 

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.